A Dancer’s Farewell, Not as Choreographed

When Abi Stafford Lillo took her remaining curtsy final fall after greater than twenty years at New York Metropolis Ballet, it seemed like a typical dancer retirement, with colleagues handing her bouquets because the viewers applauded wildly.

However her smile that afternoon masked what had turn out to be a bitter dispute behind the scenes between the ballerina and the corporate.

Ms. Lillo, 40, mentioned she determined to go away as a result of she felt she had been sidelined since her estranged brother, Jonathan Stafford, turned Metropolis Ballet’s inventive director. Then, she mentioned, she was minimize from the opening evening solid of her remaining ballet, “Russian Seasons,” by its choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. He advised her in a textual content that “the men were struggling” to companion her — which she thought of “body shaming,” she mentioned in an interview.

Metropolis Ballet officers countered that Ms. Lillo had been provided a number of roles lately that she had declined, and mentioned that Mr. Stafford had no say in her casting as a result of his contract prohibited him from choices involving both her or his spouse, the dancer Brittany Pollack. They mentioned Ms. Lillo had been faraway from the “Russian Seasons” opening not due to her weight, however due to “issues with her stamina and with her strength.”

The dispute offers a window into the complicated, typically fraught dynamics of Metropolis Ballet, a close-knit firm during which kinfolk, spouses and romantic companions typically share a office. And it’s a reminder of the stability ballet firms should obtain as they search to maneuver previous many years of unhealthy give attention to the load and physique form of dancers, whereas persevering with to demand the power, flexibility, athleticism and artistry that outline the artwork kind.

Metropolis Ballet has lengthy been one thing of a household affair. George Balanchine, its co-founder, was married to 2 of its main dancers. The spouse and son of Peter Martins, the corporate’s ballet grasp in chief for many years, have been each principal dancers below his management. And a number of other pairs of siblings have danced within the firm collectively, together with the Kirklands, the d’Amboises, the Fairchilds and the Angles.

The Staffords joined the ranks of Metropolis Ballet siblings, initially learning on the Faculty of American Ballet, its affiliated academy, after which becoming a member of the corporate. However they grew aside, at the same time as they continued to work collectively.

Rising up in central Pennsylvania, Ms. Lillo was the primary in her household to start out ballet, she mentioned in an interview. She recalled being pissed off when her brother and sister adopted her lead. “I wanted ballet to be my thing, even when I was 6,” she mentioned. “I was just always very resentful of them encroaching on my activity.”

In 2000, Mr. Martins employed her, at 17, to bop within the firm’s corps de ballet after six weeks as an apprentice — an unusually fast promotion. As she established herself critics praised Ms. Lillo’s approach, with one writing that she “defines every step with remarkable clarity.” At different instances the opinions have been extra middling, with some critics suggesting her dancing was lacking depth.

Her relationship together with her brother, which had been robust, began to deteriorate. She mentioned that she had been offended on her thirty first birthday when Mr. Stafford bought engaged. “I was like, OK, he’s literally trying to make my birthday about him,” she mentioned.

In 2017, Mr. Martins, the corporate’s longtime chief, left after he turned the topic of misconduct allegations, which he denied and which the corporate later mentioned weren’t corroborated. Mr. Stafford took over, first as interim chief after which as inventive director, with Ms. Whelan as affiliate inventive director. In an effort to keep away from conflicts, Ms. Whelan was given oversight of the casting and employment of Ms. Lillo and Ms. Pollack. However Ms. Lillo got here accountable her brother for what she noticed as fewer alternatives.

Mr. Stafford declined an interview, however mentioned in an announcement that Ms. Lillo had impressed him to turn out to be a dancer and that he had been “saddened” by the breakdown of their relationship, which he mentioned deteriorated after he was promoted to principal dancer. “I have made many efforts since then to reconnect, but our relationship has never been the same,” he mentioned.

Lower than a 12 months after Mr. Stafford was formally named inventive director, Ms. Lillo went on a psychological well being go away. In an interview, she attributed the go away to the rift and her perception that she was being ignored in casting choices.

It was in March 2020, simply earlier than the pandemic halted stay performances in New York for a 12 months and half, that she advised the corporate she wished to go away. She charged that after Mr. Stafford took over she had been relegated to “understudy roles in the back of the room,” as her lawyer, Leila Amineddoleh, wrote in a letter to the corporate.

She requested for 3 years of severance pay, a launch from her contract so she might dance elsewhere, and a solo curtain name at her remaining efficiency.

In written responses to Ms. Lillo’s allegations, Kathleen McKenna, a lawyer for Metropolis Ballet, rejected her declare that she had successfully been “demoted” after her brother turned inventive director, itemizing 13 ballets that she had been solid in since 2019, and noting that she couldn’t carry out throughout spring of that 12 months as a result of she was injured. Ms. McKenna wrote that Ms. Lillo had additionally declined some alternatives after which had gone on go away.

“In connection with that decision, she confided in Ms. Whelan that she no longer loved dancing but rather loved ‘the law,’” Ms. McKenna wrote.

Ms. Lillo, who began lessons at Fordham’s regulation college in 2018, acknowledged that she had declined to carry out some roles due to accidents, her go away and different points, however maintained that she was not getting solid equitably with different principal dancers.

In an interview she mentioned that she had grown pissed off after she requested Ms. Whelan to study new roles, and was advised she was not proper for them. “The one thing that she said to me was that was really disturbing or upsetting was, she said, ‘We’re trying to do what’s right by the ballets.’” Ms. Lillo mentioned she retorted, “What about the dancers?”

In an interview, Ms. Whelan mentioned she had labored laborious to search out Ms. Lillo roles.

“I don’t think she was treated unfairly,” Ms. Whelan mentioned. “I went out of my way to give her opportunities.”

Final fall, as Metropolis Ballet ready to return to its theater at Lincoln Heart, Ms. Lillo made plans to bop the ballet “Russian Seasons” for her farewell efficiency.

However after early rehearsals, its choreographer, Mr. Ratmansky, requested for her to be minimize from its opening evening solid, Ms. Whelan mentioned. Ms. Whelan referred to as her and gave her the information, Ms. Lillo recalled, telling her that Mr. Ratmansky didn’t assume she was “strong enough” or prepared for the primary evening however that she might nonetheless dance it for her farewell efficiency.

Ms. Lillo adopted up with a textual content message to Ms. Whelan and Mr. Ratmansky, writing “I wish you had given me two more weeks before you made your decision” and including that she was “continuing to work and push,” in keeping with screenshots of the textual content messages.

“I am very sorry it hurt you,” Mr. Ratmansky replied. “I feel bad about it. I am also sorry I didn’t manage to talk to you.”

He went on: “But please understand. There is a lot of partnering in the piece and it should look effortless. The men were struggling.” (Mr. Ratmansky didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

Ms. Whelan mentioned that she was by no means advised that the choice was about Ms. Lillo’s weight, and that she interpreted Mr. Ratmansky as saying Ms. Lillo was lacking the power and technical talent that feminine dancers have to make partnering look easy.

However Ms. Lillo learn that textual content as indicating that it was “about how my body looked and not about how strong I was.”

“It’s only because I’m now saying it’s body shaming that they’re changing the narrative,” she mentioned. Her lawyer wrote to the corporate that the ultimate weeks of her ballet profession precipitated her “intense emotional distress” and requested for $200,000 in compensation along with the standard exit pay she had already acquired. (Metropolis Ballet has not agreed to that demand.)

Metropolis Ballet has spoken lately of making an attempt to vary the dialog about weight and dancer’s our bodies — and to maneuver previous a tradition has generally appeared to prize thinness above different attributes, to the detriment of dancers’ bodily and psychological well being.

The soloist Georgina Pazcoguin wrote in her 2021 memoir that her thighs have been criticized, driving her to get surgical procedure to take away fats from them. And Ms. Lillo mentioned Mr. Martins had as soon as criticized her weight and eliminated her from a season.

Ms. Whelan mentioned the corporate has new protocols about weight points: a wellness director is to be concerned in any conversations with a dancer, and dancers are to be provided entry to a nutritionist, bodily remedy and psychological well being companies. “We have to treat our dancers as human beings and with dignity,” she mentioned, noting that she didn’t see the conversations about Ms. Lillo’s remaining efficiency as being about weight.

Metropolis Ballet maintains that it labored to provide Ms. Lillo the farewell that she wished however that she was not ready for that first efficiency, and famous that she had not attended firm lessons through the pandemic. Ms. Lillo mentioned that the lessons weren’t obligatory, and that she had skilled at residence and on the fitness center.

Ms. Lillo was allowed to bop in “Russian Seasons” for her farewell efficiency, on Sept. 26. Mr. Ratmansky agreed to some adjustments in his choreography to “accommodate” Ms. Lillo’s skills, in keeping with Metropolis Ballet’s letter to Ms. Lillo’s lawyer. Ms. Lillo mentioned that some lifts had been modified, but it surely had been her understanding that the adjustments have been made as a result of her companion was injured.

After her remaining curtain name for “Russian Seasons,” Ms. Lillo modified out of her costume and right into a selfmade T-shirt. It learn: “I survived NYCB.”

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